In a review of The Morning They Came for Us, by Janine di Giovanni, Anand Gopal writes: These days, when politicians bring up the Middle East, they collapse a decade’s worth of occupation, civil war and revolution into a single, ineffable horror: the Islamic State. The idea is that we’ve never seen a group so horrific, so threatening to global stability — which is fueling calls for world powers to ally with, or acquiesce to, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as a lesser evil in the war against ISIS.
But look beyond this narrow counterterrorism prism and you see the devastating truth: a regime that is willing to rape, torture, starve and gas as many of its citizens as necessary to secure its rule — and in the process, sow such apocalyptic chaos as to help spawn a global refugee crisis and the rise of ISIS. This is the searing lesson of Janine di Giovanni’s heartbreaking “The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches From Syria.” Di Giovanni, a veteran foreign correspondent, visited Syria repeatedly in 2012, meeting with civilian activists and doctors, regime soldiers and pro-Assad nuns, and has written a moving portrait of a country divided by and under siege from its own president.
We meet Nada, a young woman who grew up near Qardaha, the hometown of the Assad family, and joined the revolution because she “wanted the chance to live in a democracy,” she tells the author. “As you do.” She was soon arrested by the secret police and thrown into prison, where she was beaten and whipped. Sometimes, when she asked for water, authorities would order a male prisoner to urinate in a bottle and try to force her to drink. In the end, she was raped. It’s just one example of the regime’s use of sexual violence as a tool of interrogation and punishment that di Giovanni documents in a series of harrowing passages. She describes the case of a young woman arrested for putting up revolutionary posters, who was blindfolded, tied to a chair and told she would be passed from man to man. She reproduces the transcript of a captured shabiha, a regime mercenary, whose stated aim was to “quash the revolution” and who admits to breaking into a school and raping women “for six continuous hours.” And later, his men discovered a woman in a house. “We were four to rape her,” he said, “and she committed suicide following her rape.” [Continue reading…]